John Psathas – the composer: Music, it’s all about the hang


John Psathas​ sits atop a tennis umpire’s chair watching the waves roar on to Waitārere Beach.

Alone, but not lonely, the lofty perch is a good spot to let the mind wander. Maybe check for whales.

He’s coming to the end of an eight-week solo stretch at the family beach house.

It’s not lockdown as we know it. It’s lockdown Psathas style.

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Charged by regular brews of strong gritty Greek coffee and a mind fizzing with new compositions, he’s usually up at 6am and working till he’s too tired to work any longer, which is often 12-14 hours later.

“I go into a space that I can never share with anybody else. I am teleported into another universe, and I’m uncovering the secrets of it all through music …

“It’s like a parallel universe with an inhabitant of one. It’s like I pull things out of that place and bring them into this world.”

Parallel universe! Teleportation!

That’s the kind of explanation you get from someone who has spent the better part of 18 months on his own with nothing but tussock grass for company.

It’s an intensely lonely place to be in physically, mentally. The only humans he interacts with are the folks at the local Four Square.

“I live my days to the full. I’m always operating at a level of intensity. Whether it’s making music or going for a walk.’’ - John Psathas

KEVIN STENT/Stuff

“I live my days to the full. I’m always operating at a level of intensity. Whether it’s making music or going for a walk.’’ – John Psathas

Sometimes it’s loneliness but most of the time it’s solitude, he says. “Solitude has a kind of melancholy to it. Loneliness is sad.”

Perhaps it’s because he’s been on his own so long, but Psathas sure likes to talk.

You should see him after a glass or two of whiskey, he says.

Music, family, travel, politics, the problems of the world – no subject is left untouched. And don’t get him started on what he’s reading.

If you go down the rabbit hole of Henry A Giroux’s Dangerous Thinking in the Age of New Authoritarianism you might be some time.

A big bear of a man, Psathas is arguably one of Aotearoa’s most performed composers.

Kirsten Mason, former Orchestra Wellington boss, says he’s “head and shoulders above any other composer” in terms of people lining up at his door to commission works.

The pandemic, while putting the kibosh on his usual globetrotting for one premiere of his work or other, has been fruitful for him.

He’s been writing commissions day and night for orchestras and ensembles all over the world.

His music has been performed in 35 countries over the past two years.

The next few years are looking good too. He has work in Wales, Switzerland, Germany, the United States and New Zealand scheduled for performance.

The risk in quitting his 25-year-long teaching job at the New Zealand School of Music-Te Kōkī at the end of 2018 has paid off.

Psathas quit his job at NZSM to freelance working mostly from the family beach bolthole at Waitarere Beach.

KEVIN STENT/Stuff

Psathas quit his job at NZSM to freelance working mostly from the family beach bolthole at Waitarere Beach.

It was at a Toto concert (“I’m a huge fan”) in Europe while on sabbatical in 2018 that he convinced himself to go freelance.

“I never sing, never dance. But by the first song I was up dancing and singing my lungs out, and I thought, I want more of this in my life, more of this energy, more of this kind of free-spirited experience of life.”

He’s always been a very controlled, very productive person, he says.

In fact, he says, he’s been all kinds of ‘’ables’’– dependable, reliable.

He wanted to break out. Live a little.

Plus, he was getting to an age where he thought if he didn’t do it soon, he’d lose his nerve.

He may have quit the academic life, but he’s as fanatical about his work as ever. Perhaps more so.

“I’m an obsessive,” he says. “This thing of music is totally everything. Even at university I was incredibly productive. I had three pillars in my life: family, music, university, and there was nothing else.

“I had a few friends, but I lost them all through total negligence on my part because I was so committed to these other things.

“I live my days to the full. I’m always operating at a level of intensity. Whether it’s making music or going for a walk. If I’m going for a walk it’s to have an amazing walk.”

It sounds exhausting, but it’s that kind of thinking that gets him up in the morning.

That kind of obsession, that level of commitment, has seen him win a clutch of Tui Awards for best classical album. In 2003, it manifested in an Art Foundation Laureate Award.

2003 NZ Arts Foundation Laureates. From left Humphrey Ikin, John Psathas, Neil Dawson, Jenny Bornholdt and Michael Hurst.

Maarten Holl/Stuff

2003 NZ Arts Foundation Laureates. From left Humphrey Ikin, John Psathas, Neil Dawson, Jenny Bornholdt and Michael Hurst.

Since finishing his music degree at Victoria University of Wellington-Te Herenga Waka, where these days he is emeritus professor, he’s gone from one commission to the next, even while in his full-time job teaching.

His parents went back to Greece when he was studying at university. The expectation was that he would follow.

But things started happening for Psathas – commissions, international performances.

The term genre defying is a bit scary to those outside the music world, but Psathas’ music falls into many genres – classical with the rhythms of jazz, rock; his piano and percussion compositions are renowned.

He’s written music for huge international audiences – the 2004 Athens Olympics opening and closing ceremonies was a biggie.

His symphony with pictures, No Man’s Land, in 2016 was a one-off mammoth project commemorating World War I – 150 musicians from 25 countries assembled in locations all over the world.

Aotearoa was a great base from which to launch on to the world, he says. The kind of support the arts got well outstripped what he would have got in Greece, he says.

“If I’d gone back to Greece I would have … had a small private [music] school in the village, probably living upstairs from my parents.”

Instead, he’s based in the Wellington suburb of Mornington with wife Carla and son Emanuel, 25 a producer, DJ and rapper. Daughter Zoe, 21, is just finishing a music degree.

He and Carla, a senior IT analyst, met while he was at university. He gave her lessons in audio engineering, she rented him a room in her flat.

Carla and John Psathas liked each other from the get-go.

MONIQUE FORD/Stuff

Carla and John Psathas liked each other from the get-go.

They liked each other straight away.

Psathas usually goes back to Greece every year, visiting his father and elder sister in a village just north of Thessalonike.

His parents moved to New Zealand in 1960. They were grafters, taking on three jobs each and making enough to buy a house in Taumarunui, where they started a restaurant.

Renowned Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro plays a composition by John Psathas entitled: One Study One Summary - a solo piece for marimba, junk percussion and tape.

Warwick Smith/Stuff

Renowned Portuguese percussionist Pedro Carneiro plays a composition by John Psathas entitled: One Study One Summary – a solo piece for marimba, junk percussion and tape.

He learned piano – at first reluctantly – and studied piano performance at university. But don’t ask him to play in front of an audience.

He blames his early schooling for his reluctance to perform the music he writes.

The method of punishment employed by the nuns at his Catholic school was shaming, as well as some pretty questionable physical abuse. They’d slap his hand with a ruler till the nun was ‘’frothing at the mouth’’, he says.

When the family later moved to Napier they bought a steak and eggs joint. Both Psathas and his sister worked most evenings, often till the wee hours, before they had even hit their teens.

He’d be so wired up after work he would listen to his stereo with headphones till he fell asleep.

While his family were not musical, they always listened to music, he says.

Psathas on the beach at Waitārere.

KEVIN STENT/Stuff

Psathas on the beach at Waitārere.

At gatherings everyone would dance and sing along to a record.

He played in a Greek band as a teenager. Named simply The Greek Band, Psathas and his mates played taverna evenings, weddings, parties.

“I’d walk down the the hill to the hall next to the Greek church on Hania St after a day of complicated music theory at university and set up for a Greek night – we’d start playing and people would leap up, form a circle and dance.

“I wondered how I’d integrate these two different understandings of music because they’re totally different – that pointy-headed music and the sheer joy of it.

“Those two things are what got fused together in me to create the music I make – a combination of the pointy-headed music education and this very earthy Greek taverna experience.”

John Psathas, far right, with The Greek Band.

Supplied

John Psathas, far right, with The Greek Band.

These days he’s writing music through a lens of society and world politics. Music can be more than just enjoyable, he says. It has to be.

“I’ve arrived at a point where I think anything I’m going to do can be better, more meaningful, have more value if I introduce ideas into the work so that there’s this other part of the brain working at the same time as listening to the music.”

He’s big on solitude, but has collaborated on many projects. He wrote music for an e-book by Salman Rushdie (nice guy, bit controlled). He’s great mates and kindred spirits with Serj Tankian, ​from Armenian-American heavy mental band System of a Down. He’s worked with Warren Maxwell and the band Little Bushmen.

The best times in this biz are hanging with other composers and musicians, says Psathas, who in 2005 was made an ONZM for services to music.

He recalls (or has sketchy recollections of) an eight-hour beer-drinking session with musicians at a bunch of London pubs – lots of beer and bags of pork scratchings in between energised conversation and a hatching of plans.

“The energy was endless, it was incredible. That’s when I’m at my happiest.

“Those are the moments I think I’m so glad I’m into music because I get to hang out with people like this.

“It’s all about the hang.”

That’s Psathas, obsessive, intense. Living his life to the full.



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